At around 7 p.m. on September 5, Christopher Vale, a junior at Dartmouth
College, and his partner (who wished to remain anonymous) topped out the West Face (IV 5.11c) on El Capitan, traversed along the top of the wall and began the East Ledges descent: the quickest and most popular way to descend El Cap. The two reached the East Ledges rappels, a series of four
raps, at about 8 p.m. It was dark and Vale was moving faster than his partner, who later described arriving at the top fixed line just as Vale was
yelling, “Off rappel.”
In an interview with Yosemite climbing rangers, Vale’s partner said that “eight seconds later” he heard crashing, looked down and saw that Vale’s headlamp had disappeared. He yelled and yelled but got no response. At 8:30 Vale’s partner called 911, and the dispatcher alerted Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR). YOSAR scrambled a “hasty team” that rallied to the base of the East Ledges rappels, where they found Vale’s lifeless body.
The YOSAR team found that Vale’s ATC had an unanchored blue rope rigged through it and surmised the rope or anchor had failed, but Vale’s partner reported that all the raps were fixed—no lines were missing. According to Yosemite head climbing ranger Brandon Latham, YOSAR later learned that a climber descending the East Ledges a few days before had noticed the first (top) fixed rope was in bad shape. He and his partner decided to replace the old cord with one of their own ropes. The climber who had not yet descended cut the bad rope and threw it down to his partner below to coil, but the rope hooked over a flake and tangled in a tree. After wrestling with the stuck rope, the team abandoned it. Over the next several days, other parties rappelled past the stuck rope but left it hanging within reach.
Although it is impossible to know exactly what transpired with Vale, Latham hypothesized that he might have rappelled to a ledge just short of the next set of anchors. Seeing the blue cord within reach, he might have presumed it was the next fixed line and transferred onto it without confirming that it was anchored. At some point the line wrenched free, and Vale fell to his death.
Take responsibility for your own safety, and don’t blindly trust fixed gear. Fixed ropes and slings are always suspect and often in bad condition. This accident would have been prevented if Vale and his partner had rigged their own rappels. Popular areas like Yosemite are littered with old tat and cords, and climbers often use them with impunity—but sometimes this old trash fails.
The fixed ropes adorning the East Ledges rappels are convenient, but they can be particularly manky. If you choose to use fixed gear—whether it is ropes or slings or that rusted pin—inspect it first. In this case the climbers were starting at the top and had the opportunity to inspect the gear as they descended. Always visually confirm that the rope/s you are using are sound and properly anchored. If Vale had visually confirmed the rope he was clipping into was anchored, he would still be alive.
If you decide to clean up trash like old ropes, fixed slings or loose rock, finish the job. Never leave a stuck rope or sling within reach of other climbers. Yes, it’s more work, but it’s called laziness when you don’t clean up after yourself. As AMGA licensed mountain guide Jeff Ward wrote (see Master Class), “I’m amazed at how often the established rappel station is a complete mess of tattered, sun-bleached slings.” Always have a knife, and cut excess cord if necessary. In this case, according to head climbing ranger Latham, the climber who attempted to throw down the old blue cord had a knife but neglected to use it to cut away the mess.
Finally, lots of climbers passed within reach of the stuck rope, but no one took the time to cut it or clear it. If you see a hazardous situation, step up. If anyone had cut or cleared the stuck blue line, this accident would never have happened.
“Those guys were trying to do a good thing by replacing that old cord,” Latham said. “But they didn’t follow through. Think about it. Your trash can literally kill.”
This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 241 (April 2017).